It’s the last steamy Friday morning in August and I am perusing the local newspaper’s Prep Football Preview 2011. Staged photos reflecting the roles of each position dot the insert. Carefree, helmet less half backs run free or are suspended in mid-air as they dive toward the end zone. Quarterbacks are poised to throw, projecting leadership with determined gazes. Serious looking offensive linemen are grouped together in crouched stances, models of team play and submission of the individual for the greater good. Screaming linebackers charge the camera like enraged grizzlies.
In a few weeks, when the daytime temperature dips into the 60’s and a cool nip grips the evening breeze, my wife and I will trek to our favorite high school’s Friday night football game. We’ll pay the $3 admission and crunch across the cinder track as the home team warms up in the end zone, blue and gold uniforms aglow beneath bright lights.
Pep band blasting, we’ll shout our order to parents working concessions: “Two rib eye sandwiches, two Cokes, two popcorn, please.” We’ll spread grilled onions and cold mustard on the sizzling steaks, then swing a leg over the bench of a wooden picnic table and strike up a conversation with whomever is across from us.
Ritual honored, another change of seasons will be official for me.
From a sport perspective, I associate hockey and basketball with winter. In the spring, images of baseball players stretching at spring training, golf at a flower-filled Augusta National or engines revving at the Indy 500, are conjured. The summer, more golf, more baseball, the beach or the pool, along with lots of grilling.
But fall is football. High school, college, pro. It dominates coverage, the other sports playing second fiddle until the high school champs are crowned in November, the bowl games played during the holidays, and the Super Bowl capping it all off. Football is America’s game.
Perhaps no book captures the preeminence the game has achieved than Buzz Bissingers’s Friday Night Lights. For those unfamiliar, Bissinger followed the 1988 Odessa Permian high school football season from training camp to elimination in the state semifinals. He captured the emotional weight high school football carried in small town Texas, the success or failure of the local team a point of community pride or disappointment. But the book speaks to more than just high school football in Texas. It is evidence of America’s love affair with football and our need for community.
Now I will concede that football in 2011, even in Texas, may not garner the attention it did in 1988. That world was one in which the internet, a plethora of 24 hour news and sport channels, streaming movies, X box, Playstation and Nintendo either did not exist or were available to only a few. Although only twenty some years ago, it was a different era. The beeps and buzzes of technology we take for granted today were a distant white noise.
Certainly high school football is not the focal point of small town Illinois. At one time basketball was, entire communities emptied as citizens caravanned to neighboring towns for away games. Criminals sometimes robbed deserted businesses while local police listened to the game on the radio.
But if the numbers paying attention to football have thinned due to the new digital day, you can bet other sports have suffered as well. When it comes to the transformation of American society wrought by the Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, I am no old fuddy duddy lamenting days gone by (my kids might throw a flag at that statement, but I stand by it.) I enjoy touching base with people through Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, email and this blog. Like anything else, it’s all good if used judiciously.
But it’s not the same as attending a live event where you meet and greet people face to face, shake hands, laugh out loud (for real not in text), smell popcorn, munch hot, greasy food and join the pep band as it leads the singing crowd in a rousing rendition of the school fight song.
Perhaps the key to football’s ongoing popularity is that it complements both past and current. Attending a football game, or watching it with friends at home, is social networking in 3D. It accommodates a web surfing attention span that thrives on constant and varied input. Football lets folks visit, but within a fixed time frame. The pregame meal a moment to discuss the teams and catch up with each other. The thirty seconds between downs allows for conversation, yet the ticking clock keeps thing moving. Each play provides a new window to digest in silence and provides grist for verbal instant messaging. The post game is all about quick, flashy highlights, and no guilt good byes. Everybody logging off and going home, game over.
Football fits in a world where technology simultaneously complicates and simplifies, connects yet isolates. It provides a gathering place where good food, warm smiles, back slapping, hand shaking, lively conversation, high fives and hugs carry the day.
For me, anyway, that’s a ritual worth honoring.